The Italian Paradox

Hello everyone, it’s time for the (now annual) blog post.

Here I am in the hotel Luxor in Turin. No, not a recreation of the pyramids as one might find in Las Vegas, but a 3* Best Western operation that has delivered me a nice room but sub-par toiletries.

You might wonder why I’m in my hotel at 8.50pm on a Wednesday night when I am, ostensibly, on holiday. It’s a fair question. The answer is that a) I’m here on my own, b) the Champions League final is on (Man U 0-0 Barcelona at the moment), and c) the Italian Paradox.

You are probably all familiar with the French Paradox (the French diet of substantial amounts of fat and red wine that generates a relatively low rate of heart disease. cf the Glasgow Paradox, where a diet consisting (shit, Barcelona have scored against the run of early play, still, better now than in the 89th minute) of fried food and beer strangely hasn’t killed off the entire population.)

I have just experienced, not for the first time, the Italian paradox. Went to the restaurant nearest my hotel. The food was good. Extensive menu with all the usual things on it. The Italians get food. Big time. They get ingredients for sure. The basic rule of Italian cuisine (pasta/pizza notwithstanding) seems to be “take ingredient, serve”. They don’t mess around with stuff too much. And there’s something to be said for that. But this “wham, bam, grazie mamma” approach to food means that mealtimes become quite perfunctory. I just had a very nice 3-course meal and coffee in less than an hour. The waiter was friendly, the food really was good (carpaccio di pulpo followed by spada al limone and then fregolas (which I think I wrongly rhymed with Legolas from Lord of the Rings when ordering)). It came astonishingly promptly although the restaurant was quite full. In fact I went there was partly due to its proximity and partly because I walked past the open door of the kitchen and it looked very professional and clean.

Previous visits to Italy (all to the northern climes, at least since being an adult) have revealed that Italians like to order a plate of one thing rather than complex taste combinations. On one side of me, a father had a plate of asparagus while his son had some spaghetti. On the other side, a guy had a bowl of dressed grated carrot. Patti di giorno do not come with frivolities such as vegetables. You order the veg separately. It can get expensive. Especially with the £/€ exchange rate right now. (Van der Sar was at fault for the goal by the way – but United still look the better side).

So, the paradox is this: for a country so proud (and rightly so) of its culinary heritage, why is the act of eating out such a nondescript affair. It’s not as if it’s supercheap unless, I suppose, you have a slice of pizza or a bowl of pasta in a café. But everyone I saw eating simply ate their food, fairly quickly, and then vamoosed. No lingering. No savouring every bite. And tonight is not the first time I’ve encountered this. It makes me feel pressured when ordering and deciding, not helped by my faltering and extremely basic phrasebook Italian.

I find it strange. I want to enjoy the experience of going out to a ristorante, even if it’s fairly straightforward. I want to enjoy the nice ingredients rather than sitting with the slight feeling that I have to finish my food pronto. I could understand this if I was somewhere without a proud culinary tradition. But I’m in ITALY!!! Maybe I need to ditch the efficiency of the north with its factories and fashion and more northern European outlook. But the Turton paradox is that I don’t want to take five hours over a meal either. Especially when there’s a Champions League final to be watched. It’s still 1-0 to Barcelona.

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